Nippon Express – 80 Days in Tokyo

happenings and experiences during my stay at RICOH Software R&D, Tokyo

Get Ready For Your Daily Dose Of Engrish March 2, 2008

Okay, I just came back from a shopping spree in Harajuku. I thought it was about time to get some fancy new clothes, and Harajuku is definitely one of the better places to shop for clothes in Tokyo. For one, there’s Omotesando, sometimes referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées. I don’t know, has been quite some time since I have been to Paris, but to my understanding, Omotesando has little in common with Champs-Élysées (apart from the expensive shops). Anyway, shopping in Omotesando kind of breaks my budget anyway, so I went to Takeshita-dōri, which is near Omotesando and is more catered towards cheap people like me who don’t drive Ferraris.

More pictures in my Shibuya picture gallery.

Yesterday I recovered from a bad hangover after a looooong Friday night. But I don’t want to bore you again with event diners and Hookah bars so let’s talk about something really funny: Use of foreign languages in Japan! Using English and German on signs, t-shirts, book covers and basically anything you can label somehow is really popular in Japan. The funny thing about this is that only few people can actually read it, so whoever writes these texts does not really care much about spelling and grammar, resulting in some pretty funny sights, like these:

Or how about these. The first one is a sign I found at a counter (I think it was at Kawaguchiko Station) and it reads (it’s a little blurry, sorry for that): “This is an exclusive cash register selling a thing.” The second one is maybe my favorite. It’s a power button I spotted in a ropeway in Kawaguchiko and its creator actually managed to misspell the word “power” (it reads “POEWR” instead). I mean, seriously, a button with a typo in its label?! Gimme a break!! 😀

Okay, you still think this is not that funny? Then take a deep breath and have a look at this gem (sorry, only for my friends from Germany — unless you’re not from Germany and speak German of course). This is the cover of a notebook (a college block) we found at a 100Yen shop…

Whoever wrote this apparently didn’t even try to make sense of this. Too funny!

For more entertainment of this kind, please go to Now. 😉


The Little Big Differences (Part II) January 29, 2008

Continuing “The Little Big Differences (Part I)“, here are some more interesting and noteworthy observations, again presented in no particular order and without any judgmental intentions. This time, less differences, but more pictures!Coca-Cola corn soup!This is the stuff!

  • Gas stations have a service staff as I only know from 1950s US-American Hollywood movies. If you drive into a gas station, several people will come by and service your car. Again, this shows how well customers are treated here in Japan.
  • The Coca-Cola company sells hot canned corn soup at vending machines (“Bistrone”).
  • Although such a busy city, subways will stop their service at around midnight.
  • There is a Japanese noodle dish which is served cold.
  • Shops like convenience stores, supermarkets and department stores are open on sundays and holidays.
  • Power outlets operate at 110 Volts.
  • Washing machines wash with cold water.This is what you wear in Tokyo!
  • The McDonalds here has the biggest burger I have ever seen — the Mega Mac! Seriously, it puts any Big Mac to shame. I heard Wendy’s has an even bigger one. Sheesh!
  • Every like tenth person or so wears a protective mask over his/her mouth, just like hospital staff does during surgery and stuff (see picture at the bottom). I heard this is either because people who are ill don’t want to spread their germs and potentially infect other people, or because they simply don’t want to catch anything themselves. Considering how crowded many places (subways!) are in Tokyo, I can see why they do that, although personally I wouldn’t want to wear it. So far, I didn’t catch anything (I guess? Whaaa! Let’s change the topic…)
  • If you thought hooded coats and jackets with fur collars are (were?) hip in Germany, then please, come to Tokyo! Literally everyone between 10 and 30 is wearing these here. Seriously, not having one of these really makes you feel like an outsider here!
Protective Masks

The Little Big Differences (Part I) January 16, 2008

It’s been a week now since I arrived in Tokyo, and I begin to notice all those little differences, which sometimes also aren’t so little after all. The following observations I made are listed in no particular order and should be read “as-is” without any judgmental intention whatsoever.

  • Garbage in Japan is separated into combustible and non-combustible trash (the latter of which basically boils down to cans and PET bottles to my understanding)
  • Concerning trash, there are literally no trash-cans in the public. You sometimes find them at train stations, but you have to look really hard. At the same time, despite the many people and the missing trash-cans, it is really really clean on the streets. I have yet to figure out how they do this, but it really shows how positive their attitude is towards keeping their environment clean. I like that.
  • At the same time, people in Japan love packing up things in foil and bags. It’s also fun to unpack things again. That way, you never have to buy trash bags, because I assure you, you’ll never run out of plastic bags here.
  • There are much less people here with weight problems (compared to Germany, that is). One clear indicator for the claim that Japanese food is much healthier than ours (lots of fish, rice, vegetables, not to forget the freshness factor).
  • There seem to be much less smokers here, although you will find cigarette vending machines at every corner. If Japan has as many smokers as Germany does, they are doing a pretty good job at not showing it in the public. I also think restaurants and most (or all) other public places have strict smoking prohibitions.
  • People here love all sorts of electronic handheld devices, particularly mobile phones.
  • There is — no — such thing as Yamba here in Japan. Everyone has rather plain ringtones. One of my favorite aspects I guess.
  • Faucets (water-taps) open downwards, if they are operated using a lever. I’m still having problems with that.
  • Door knobs and locks open counter-clockwise. Ditto.
  • Cars drive on the left in Japan. It’s easy to get run over by a car because you accidentally looked to the wrong side before crossing the street.
  • Pedestrians and bikers share the sidewalk, there is also no clear rule in which direction you have to go or drive, which makes walking on the sidewalk rather… interesting. Dangerous, sometimes, too.
  • At bigger crossroads, traffic lights for pedestrians have a countdown, so you know how long it takes for the traffic lights to turn green again. Oh and, yes, they also have a green and a red traffic-light-man. If the traffic light is about to turn from green to red, it will start to flash. Pretty cool.
  • Unlike in Germany, fast food here is really, really good. And I’m not speaking of Mc Donalds (which I have yet to visit — they have a burger of the size of my entire head).
  • There doesn’t seem to be what we call “H-Milch” (milk that is fresh for more than a week by using heat to conserve it).
  • Speaking of milk-based products, there are much less than in Germany. I think Milk has not had a long tradition in Japan, but it seems to become more popular.
  • You don’t give tips to waiters here. You just pay what’s on the bill.
  • Japan seems to have a tendency to be not very economical when it comes to electricity. Rooms are heated with air conditioning if it’s cold outside, and rooms are cooled with air conditioning if it’s hot outside. That means the air conditioning runs 24-7 (apart from the fact that air conditioners are not very effectice compared to classic heaters). Vending machines for beverages serve both hot and cold drinks, and both are always held on temperature. While I understand that this makes sense for cold drinks (it would be impossible to cool down a drink the second someone buys it), I think at least the hot beverages like canned soup or coffee could be heated on-demand when someone actually buys them (this fact becomes particularly irritating when you find a vending machine in the middle of nowhere — and you will, they are everywhere.). But I guess this just falls into the category “great service”, which is really true for Japan.

So, that’s it for now. More to come.


So It Has Come To This – My First Few Days In Japan January 14, 2008

Wow. Only four days and yet so much to tell already. First of all, my excuses for being a little late with my first post, I didn’t have internet access in my apartment for the first couple of days and I spent the first weekend on a trip (more on that in a minute) and of course I also didn’t want to blog while being at work, so, this will be rather lengthy.

I have much to cover already, so I’ll get right on topic. I’ll keep things short on my arrival and all that and like to focus more on my first tour to the west coast of Japan. Both Martin (a fellow student) and me arrived on Wednesday morning at Narita Airport (that’s the big one, right), after traveling for almost 22 hours (including hours of waiting for continuation flights and buses at Helsinki airport and Narita airport). We left at 10:45 AM in Frankfurt, Germany and arrived at 10:00 AM in Narita, which means we sort of skipped one day ahead. Talk about having the worst jet lag you can imagine. The airport was amazingly empty, but still, my first impression was: Wow, we’re in another world. We took a shuttle from Terminal 2 which ran fully automated – no driver. It sort of felt like the introductory sequence of the Half-Life computer game where a similar shuttle takes you to Black Mesa. After claiming our baggage we had to wait 3 or 4 more hours for a bus which took us to the RICOH R&D office building. We were heartily welcomed by Ms. Hirano who works for RICOH and were introduced to the rest of the staff. After that, Ms. Hirano took us to our apartments in Soka (that’s a city north of Tokyo which belongs to the Saitama prefecture). I will dedicate an own blog post to the Leopalace apartments, because I think they are amazing, so at this point let me just say that they are really, really, good. The first two actual work days at RICOH were just fine, the people are great, but I was still suffering from severe jet lag and had problems keeping attention when I was being explained something. Luckily, there wasn’t really that much work to do (yet). Okay, I will just skip ahead to Friday now and talk about our first trip we took from Friday to Sunday!

The first trip we already planned when we were still in Germany. Actually, I have to give all the credits to Volker Hudlet here, because he did all the planning and organization, mostly because he is really good at it and because he has already been in Japan for two months. The idea was to first visit Kanazawa, which (according to has one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens of all Japan, the Kenrokuen. Without needing to see other gardens, I can agree on that.

Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa, Japan

We took a night bus on Friday evening, which was a 7-8 hours ride over night from Tokyo Station to Kanazawa. The ride was — literally — a pain in the back. The bus was not very comfortable so I didn’t get any sleep, but actually I didn’t mind much. I sort of got used to sleep much less here than in Germany. There is simply too much to see and too few time to sleep much… Anyway, we arrived at Kanazawa station in the morning and immediately took off to see the city and the Kenrokuen. Kanazawa StationUnfortunately, the weather played bad on us, it was cold and rainy. No problem though, the Japanese convenience stores (which you find almost at every corner) also sell umbrellas. On our way to the gardens, we came by the market area where all sorts of sea food was being advertised. Trust me, looking at that sea food, the word ‘fresh’ really deserves a new definition here, as some of the “food” was still alive and breathing… For all pictures of Kanazawa, go here.

In the afternoon, we were already heading back for the station and took a train to our next destination: The beautiful mountain city of Takayama. Because we arrived in the evening and were pretty tired from the Kanazawa tour (and the bus ride without much sleep), we only took a short trip through the town to get some of the best Chinese food we had ever experienced. At this point I have to say how well you can eat in Japan. For only 700 YEN (that’s roughly 4,20 Euro) we got a cup of rice plus some dish you could choose (I took the meat balls), a cup of soup and as much White Tea (I think it was Jasmin flavored) as we would want. After dinner we headed back to get some sleep at Zenkoji Temple Inn. Zenkoji Temple Inn, Takayama, JapanYes, you heard me, we booked a room at a real Buddhist temple! Some temples do that for a small “donation” (that’s what they call their fees) in order to collect money for maintaining the old buildings. It was really, really great. We got to know some other people stopping by from Australia, a family with their kids and a woman who seemingly was on a trip through a couple of countries.

The next day, that’s Sunday, we took off to visit the city of Takayama in more detail (the evening before we were too tired and didn’t see much because it was dark already). We decided to take a Sake (that’s Japanese rice wine) brewery tour first, and we weren’t disappointed. I have to say, Sake is a really tasty beverage. The tour guide didn’t speak English (actually, you won’t find many people in Japan who do) but did a pretty good job at reading the English descriptions of the tour spots from her cheat sheet. At this point I have to mention how great the people in Japan are. Everyone is so helpful and gentle. If you stop somewhere to check your map, someone will finally come over and try to help you without you even asking him or her! I also have the impression that most Japanese people like Germany (and Germans) a lot. After the Sake tour, we went on a walking course to get some really beautiful impressions of the landsight. Takayama is located in the Japanese Alps and can get pretty snowy (and cold!) though. We left for Tokyo again in the afternoon.

Takayama Old House District

The next night, back in my apartment in Soka, I slept like a stone.

View Kanazawa picture gallery

View Takayama picture gallery